Book Review of “13 Steps to Evil – How to Craft a Superbad Villain”
(The complete set – Textbook, and Workbook)
Author – Sacha Black
(This post uses the male gender “he” and “his” all through for purposes of simplicity and flow. We recognize that a villain could just as easily be a she. No, we’re not implying or insinuating anything.)
A book without a villain is like a flatlined reading on an ECG monitor. A villain-less story has no life, no conflict, and hence gives us no reason to root for the protagonist. Equally bad are cliched, two-dimensional villains who invoke no chill down the spine or, worse, a bored eye-roll from the reader.
Conflict is, as any reader of books or movie-goer knows, the essence of the story and the starting point of both plot and characters. Conflict enables us to know the protagonist better, to understand his travails and to egg him on. Sacha Black says that the villain offers the contrast against which we get to know the hero. The villain helps us understand why the hero acts the way he does and how the hero evolves in the course of the story as the villain attempts to thwart him. “Without someone opposing your hero and creating conflict, there isn’t a need for the hero which means there isn’t a story either.” writes Black.
The basis for a villain’s behaviour and the reactions of the other characters to his villainy is Psychology. He needs as much purpose and a goal as does the hero, to be a worthy opponent. For writers not well versed in the subject, “Sacha Black’s 13 Steps to Evil – How to Craft a Superbad Villain” is a good introduction.
Sacha Black is clear on the difference between the terms villain, antagonist and anti-hero. The terms are often used as substitutes and get misinterpreted because of repeated wrong usage. They are also not mutually exclusive. A villain is an antagonist but an antagonist need not be a villain. A villain has an element of evil while an antagonist is what comes in the way of an easy conclusion. An antagonist may not even be human. Severe weather and the vagaries of nature, like an earthquake, a flood, or the Great White Shark of Jaws – even the feuding families of Romeo and Juliet are antagonists. They are not evil. They prevent the straight route to a satisfying conclusion of the story, and the hero has to work his way to the destination despite them.
Villains are ultimately plot device, essential literary troublemakers who move the plot forward. Black warns writers of the dangers of creating a cringe-inducing villain by not making him bad enough, or so bad that he is not credible. Another red flag is making a villain bad just for the sake of it without a plausible reason or a believable backstory. A villain like Thanos (from the Avengers series) who thinks he is justified in his warped thinking ostensibly for the good of everybody, is credibly terrifying. The villain also has the same emotions as everybody else and will display them. His reactions to his experiences drive the plot.
Black says there are two barriers that have to be overcome to create a credible villain with a depth of character. The first is that we usually see the villain from the hero’s perspective. This singular POV (Point of View) makes it especially difficult to craft an authentic villainous character and convey his evil side to the reader. Showing a villain from another point of view, with both negative and positive traits, results in a villain with more depth of character and hence more menacing. Showing a villain from another point of view, with both negative and positive traits, results in a villain with more depth of character and one who is hence more menacing. The second is that writers are usually hero-worshippers. If writers are not careful, they may give the villain’s character short shrift to the detriment of the book. An unconscious bias can result in a well-realised hero having a near cardboard cut-out of a villain in opposition, and an unsatisfied reader.
So while a hero is an embodiment of the book’s theme, the villain is the exact opposite. He represents the anti-theme. Black breaks down the villain’s story arc with examples to illustrate this. e.g. Lord Voldemort from the Harry Potter series and Loki from the Marvel Universe or Hitler from any number of World War 2 books. Not that the villain does not have values. He has positive values but enacts them badly or he has negative values. Values, whether positive or negative, produce consistent behaviour in characters and hence should be fleshed out.
Anti-heroes are another category of adversaries. While heroes are embodiments of all that is good in human beings, villains are the exact opposite displaying the darker side of their personalities. Anti-heroes are a closer reflection of the reality in human beings. An anti-hero is a flawed person with nuances of dark and light. He does the right thing in the end but has enough negative traits for a well-rounded personality. Or he has plenty of redeeming good qualities but his actions are not always positive. His motives are not clear-cut but complicated. His wounds do not heal enough for him to turn into a hero, he remains flawed but makes better decisions over time. Despite all the blurred edges to his actions, he is a positive force because ultimately there is an ethical line he will not cross.
Black also details at length the cliched villain, usually an overused feature in children’s literature, and villain tropes that elevate a piece of writing and help identify a book’s genre without devaluing it. She identifies the tools by which a writer can learn to identify and use them. Clichés are words or expressions overused to the point that they become predictable. e.g. a villain or a witch with a ‘muhaha’ cackle or ‘I woke up and realised it was all a dream’. Tropes are reoccurring themes and concepts found in genres. They help in identifying genres and can be used over and over again in novel ways. e.g. Young Adult Tropes of the orphan protagonist or distant parents, Crime tropes of a maverick detective or a dead body discovered at the very start of the novel, Romance Tropes of Boy meets Girl or Societal and class divide between lovers or Happily ever after endings.
A craft book on villainy has to deal with writing about fear and how to express it physiologically and psychologically. Sacha Black devotes an entire chapter, complete with examples on how to write about fear.
The chapter on mental health is a good primer on avoiding stereotyping and not stigmatizing whole sections of society grappling with this issue. The focus here is on writing about a character with mental health issues in an authentic manner with details of symptoms and their physical manifestation. Black also provides examples of fiction and film dealing with this.
Black takes into account the changed perception of evil over time and our reactions to evil acts as modern readers. Thanks to our current levels of exposure on various media to bad news and unprecedented levels of violence, what was previously considered evil is no longer so. We have become inured to violence and our concept of evil has morphed. A writer has to take this into account when she defines the villain’s morally inclined line and then determine if the character has crossed it and how.
13 Steps to Evil is a well-structured book and gives a good grounding to writers in crafting a villain. The first section discusses the Psychology that goes into making a villain – traits, motives, goals and creating a credible backstory. Next are sections on anti-heroes and avoiding the cliched villain, plotting conflict that help towards constructing the credible villain personality. The last section is on mental health disorders, fear and phobia.
The instruction to plan and build up the villain’s psychology is by a series of steps, a mixture of theory and practice. The thirteen steps begin with The Basics of Villainy and go on to Traits, Motives and Goals, The History of Villain Psychology, Credibility and Authenticity, Shades of Villain, Anti-heroes, Cliches, Fear and Phobias, Mental Health, Conflict and Climax, Happily Never After.
She includes further reading, an extensive villain interview to get to know the character and huge lists of books and movies of fictional villains, anti-heroes, negative traits, positive traits and soul scars. Sacha Black titles this a non-exhaustive list and it certainly is – only of American and British writing. Villains from works of Asian and African writers (among others) would have made for a more inclusive resource and a wider perspective.
There are several tools and prompts throughout the book to experiment with, and ideas to implement while developing a villain for the required genre and story. Among the first requirements is defining who the story’s bad guy is – villain, antagonist or anti-hero.
Black has an eye on what the market demands, since ultimately her reader’s book has to place with a publisher. With this in mind, she encourages the reader to explore other books in the genre to get a feel for current writing on villains. In 13 Steps to Evil, Black cites examples from contemporary bestsellers that can be studied for patterns, behaviours and character development. A series of questions at the end of each chapter clarifies character building of the villain by introducing more concepts. Tips throughout the book and cross-references are other useful features. Each chapter is summarized for quick revision.
Black is upfront that this book is not the resource for writers of horror, although there are several aspects of villainy common with this genre. It is also not the reference for literary fiction but is definitely a good fit for writing genre fiction.
All in all, Sacha Black’s 13 Steps to Evil – How to Craft a Superbad Villain is a hands-on practical guide to building up a character who may be a villain, an antagonist or an anti-hero. She offers sound insights into psychology and the tropes of modern fiction needed for effective storytelling and publication. It is a worthy addition to any author’s bookshelf to learn about creating authentic negative and nuanced characters.
(To learn more about the writer of this post, Savita Narayan, please visit our HWR team page)